Only two years ago president Bashar al-Assad of Syria might well have believed that fair winds were blowing. Foreign leaders thronged Damascus; in 2009 Syria had held a number of top-level meetings with the US administration; in February of 2010 Robert Ford became the first US Ambassador to Syria since relations were frozen due to the assassination of the Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. A little over a year ago Bashar told The Wall Street Journal - when Tunis and Cairo were already in the tumult of the Arab Spring - that Damascus differed from Cairo in that "he had a cause," and Mubarak only "a vacuum." The defense of the Palestinian people seemed a sufficient vaccine against spring fever. But now Syria is suffering a quasi-civil war that has already killed 7,000.
The obvious reasons are well known. The examples of Tunisia and Egypt; the tool supplied by the social networks to convoke popular protest; and the regime's savage repression. But it was a revolt that had long been latent and brewing.
Syria has some 23 million inhabitants, five million of whom are between 15 and 24, which would mean creating some 400,000 jobs a year (while it creates only half that) just to keep unemployment down to 20 percent. The land has suffered successive droughts since 2006, and in 2010 half a million tons of wheat had to be imported. According to official figures, 12 percent of the people live in extreme poverty, and about a third in mere poverty.
All this was masked by oil income, which some years ago represented 10 percent of the national GDP. But in 2012, as a result of US-promoted international sanctions, the oil income is drying up. A textbook case for Tocqueville, the classic analyst of revolutions.
The conflict now proceeds in a new framework: the geopolitical convulsion of the zone, in which Washington has ceased to be the principal and almost the only actor; and the return of Russia, which, when weeks ago it vetoed a UN resolution calling for the president's resignation, was defending major strategic interests. After India and Venezuela, Damascus is Moscow's third largest purchaser of arms, and since 2006 has received 3.6 billion euros worth of military materiel. Russian companies have commitments to build the Syrian leg of a gas pipeline to the Mediterranean, while nothing would please the Assad government more than to see the Russians expand their naval base at Tartus. Only Moscow can save Syria from the international economic boycott.
The case of China is more circumstantial, and probably it seconded the Russian veto with the Syria-Iran alliance in mind, given that it receives a large part of its crude oil from Tehran. But its recent declaration of neutrality in the internal conflict suggests that it is preparing for the worst.
The Turkish case, however, proceeds from the intelligent opportunism of the Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, of not allowing an old alliance to blur his country's role in the area. Its long border with Syria would render Turkish involvement decisive in creating a no-fly zone, in which the Western air umbrella would protect the rebels. The Arab League, lastly, proposes peace missions and sanctions against Damascus, but basically preventive in nature and of dubious effectiveness. And the EU? Sorry, we're having our own crisis.
What will happen first? Economic collapse, forcing the army to act against Assad, or a preventive coup? The creation of a no-fly zone would surely be the beginning of the end, and Bashar may well come to regret the 1994 accident that took the life of his elder brother, for which reason the London-schooled opthalmologist had to inherit, six years later, the rule of his father's Near Eastern republic. And now, in the 12th year of his reign, the countdown seems to have started.